HYDERABAD – The controversy over PepsiCo's legal action against Gujarat's potato farmers was set to rest May 10 with the American food and beverages giant withdrawing all its suits alleging infringement of intellectual property rights involving nine farmers from two courts in the state in the wake of public anger and global embarrassment.
The company sought an early hearing in the cases against four potato farmers in the Commercial Court of Ahmedabad and five at a district court in Modasa in Sabarkantha and moved an application to withdraw the legal suits, which was accepted.
PepsiCo India Holdings had slapped a Rs 1 crore lawsuit on the farmers for allegedly growing the FL2027 or FC5 variety of potatoes, on which the company claimed exclusive right under the PPV&FR Act, 2001. The variety is used for the multinational's popular Lay's chips.
The counsel for the farmers Anand Yagnik told reporters that it was rare for a multinational to withdraw legal suits especially against the marginalized and downtrodden.
"These farmers are into subsistence farming and not commercial farming. This is the first instance where PepsiCo has withdrawn suits not only against the farmers of Sabarkantha but also against Aravalli and Banaskantha (districts). With this withdrawal, the ill-conceived initiative of PepsiCo to threaten farmers with litigation has come to an end," Yagnik said.
The farmers' rights groups and civil society representatives mounted their attack with a call for a boycott of PepsiCo products.
Farmers' rights groups described this as a "victory of farmers" and stated that while the U..S-headquartered food and beverages player had been taught a lesson, it was now up to the Government of India to pro-actively take up measures to uphold farmers' rights.
Kapil Shah, convenor of the recently-formed Beej Adhikar Manch asserted that, "Today's development should not mean that the public campaign is over, the battle is only half won. The Government of India had so far maintained an ominous silence on the issue of farmers' seed freedom, taking cover of the matter being sub judice. Now it must make it amply clear that such litigation is not acceptable."
"Nothing less than a reiteration of farmers overriding rights will be acceptable to us. If government wants to help farmers, it should actually get an undertaking from PepsiCo India that it will not resort to these intimidation tactics ever again," said Gabhubhai Chowdhari, of RSS-affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh.
The farmers also demanded an apology and compensation from the company for the harassment they were subjected to because of the legal cases on them.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for PepsiCo India reiterated the company's position. "To safeguard the larger interest of farmers, PepsiCo India was compelled to take judicial recourse to protect its registered variety. PepsiCo from the very start had also offered an amicable settlement to farmers. After discussions with the government, the company has agreed to withdraw cases against farmers. We are relying on the said discussions to find a long-term and an amicable resolution of all issues around seed protection."